The picturesque buffalo hunter who came to symbolize the homesteading period of Osborne County history was born June 17, 1846, in Columbus, Ohio. Thomas Jefferson Durfey, whose fame spread under the name of Jeff Durfey, was five years old when his parents, A. Loomis (Lum) and Almena Durfey, decided to move their family to a farm near Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. There Jeff grew to manhood and with the advent of the Civil War he enlisted in Company A of the 30th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry as a musician. He ended the war as a private and then returned to Cottage Grove and the family farm.
In July 1870 Durfey joined a wagon train composed of the Chauncey Bliss and John Leaver families, along with fellow bachelor Amos Vandenburg, with the object of obtaining a homestead to settle on in Kansas. In Toledo, Iowa, the party was joined by the John Kaser family, and on July 26, 1870, the group camped along the draw where the United Methodist Church currently stands in Osborne, Kansas. The next day they camped on Covert Creek in Independence Township of Osborne County and staked out their various claims.
Jeff built a one-room log cabin on the east bank of the creek. He planted cottonwood and walnut trees around and settled into a relatively comfortable frontier lifestyle. From his front door he shot deer, turkeys, and buffalo. To earn a living he turned full-time to buffalo hunting, selling the meat and hides of the animals he killed to the railroad that passed to the south in Russell and Ellis Counties. Over six feet tall and of powerful build, Durfey, along with other local hunters such as John Jones and John Kaser, Jr., became famous in stories sent back to the eastern part of the United States concerning “the Wild West.”
On May 16, 1872, Jeff Durfey married Mary Burke, ward of Chauncey Bliss, a few miles from his homestead in the fledgling village of Emley City. Theirs was the first marriage license issued in Osborne County. Jeff and Mary had three children, Loomis (Lum), Henry, and Mary. By 1875 Jeff gave up the buffalo hunting trade and with the money he had earned he steadily built up his homestead until he had established the first large wheat ranch in the county. He lived the rest of his life on the 1,350-acre farm and became a source both for the early history of the county and for the wonderful yarns he would spin upon the unwary listener. Thomas Jefferson Durfey died on his homestead on January 30, 1931. He was laid to rest in the Osborne Cemetery with the local G.A.R. chapter providing the military honors. A small monument was erected on the gravesite, with a carving of the log cabin and carrying the inscription, “From such characters rise new empires.” The log cabin, for many years home to the Buffalo Hunter Museum, still stands on the original site south of Osborne, in the shade of Jeff’s cottonwood trees.
Buffalo Drank A River Dry
“Buffalo Bill [Cody] said recently in New York that the best rifle shot he ever knew was Jeff Durfey of Kansas. ‘Durfey was the only man I ever knew who could beat me shooting buffaloes on the run,’ said Buffalo Bill.
Jeff Durfey lives in Osborne County, Kansas, nine miles south of the county seat. His marriage in 1872 was the first wedding that ever took place in Osborne County, and he took his bride to live in the house he had just built . . . that house, built of oak logs that he cut forty-one years ago, stands today about a rod from the big farmhouse that he built later when he became rich from enormous wheat crops. The old log house is typical of the old pioneer civilization of Kansas, as the new and bigger home near it is typical of the modern Kansas. The old log cabin is used now as a storehouse for odds and ends of the farm. Its loft is cluttered with parts of reapers and binders, threshers and disk drills, and from among them Durfey fished out the other day some old horns of buffaloes that he shot forty years ago on that very farm.
Before he became a wheat farmer Durfey was a professional buffalo hunter for years on the Kansas plains. Buffalo hides brought him the money that paid for the first one hundred and sixty acres that he bought from the government. Wheat paid for the other 1,190 acres in his big farm. Durfey keeps books on the smooth pine door of the old log house. Chalked upon that door is this record: ‘Wheat raised in 1910–4,836½ bushels.’ Durfey tells of the time when Buffalo Bill rode nine miles across the plains to see what kind of a rifle he used in shooting buffalo.
‘That was when Buffalo Bill was supplying the Kansas Pacific Railroad with buffalo meat,’ said Durfey the other day. ‘I was shooting buffalo on the head of Walnut Creek. Bill heard a good deal about what I was doing. He rode over to see what kind of a rifle I was using. He supposed I had some newfangled kind of a gun and when he rode up he says to me, ‘Jeff, I heard Dave Willis telling about you going after nine buffalo bulls and killing seven of them on the run. There’s no man can do that with any kind of a gun I’ve ever seen, and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to see your gun.’ You’d ought to have seen his face when I handed him my rifle. It was an old government Springfield musket made over into a needle gun. I had paid $25 for it in Solomon City. It was not so much the gun as the man behind the gun, I guess.’
Durfey was asked how many buffalo he had killed in those days. ‘I don’t know–thousands of them. I used to kill from twenty to fifty a day. One day I killed fifty-six. I could have killed hundreds of cows and small bulls. A bull hide was worth more than a cow hide, so we used to pick out only the biggest bulls. I had a way of my own. A herd of buffalo wouldn’t stampede as long as the hunter kept out of sight, so I used to creep up within good shooting distance and kill the big bull that always led the herd. The herd would become excited, but would soon settle down to grazing again and another bull would step out as leader. I would shoot him and then the next one and so on until the herd became frightened away.’
‘In those days there were millions of buffaloes on these plains. I stood once on the divide between the two Solomons [rivers] and looked down on a solid mass of buffalo as far as the eye could see in all directions. The plain was black with them. That herd was forty miles wide and I don’t know how long. I was camped once on the bank of Beaver Creek, which was six feet wide and six inches deep, with swiftly running water. A buffalo heard came to the creek above our camp and drank it dry. For hours the creek bed was dry until the great herd had passed on. In 1872 a great herd of buffalo drank the Solomon River dry and the water in it was twenty-five feet wide and a foot deep. When I first came to live here in the log house the buffalo herds used to stream past the cabin within ten feet of it, but I wouldn’t shoot them then because I didn’t want the carcasses around in hot weather and the thousands of wild turkeys made better eating. I’ve seen three hundred wild turkeys in one drove right here on my place. And beaver, the Solomon was full of them. The last buffalo I saw was in 1875, when a bunch of eight came across my place and I got two of them.’
Durfey laughs when he is asked if he ever had any scrimmage with the Indians. ‘I never saw an Indian that would fight; they were all cowards,’ he says. ‘A band of thirteen Sioux Indians followed me for a whole day once. We were hunting 150 miles southwest of here when eight Sioux chased one of our men into camp. I went out to the top of a knoll and signaled for them to come on. Three of them came toward me and when they got within fifty yards they made friendly signs and laid down their guns. They went into camp with me and we fed them and I smoked a pipe with them. Three years later I was hunting three hundred miles northwest of here and was out alone when I discovered a band of thirteen Sioux Indians sneaking up toward me. All day long they followed me and tried to sneak close enough to shoot me without danger to themselves, but each time I stood them off. At last I went to the top of a knoll and waved to them all to come on. Finally one Indian rode out and came toward me, making friendly signs. When he got close he called me by name. He was one of the three Sioux I had fed three years before. We sat down to have a palaver and bye and bye I happened to look around and the whole band of twelve was creeping up on me. I got up and aimed my rifle at the heart of the Indian with me and said, ‘Signal them to halt or I’ll kill you.’ He waved, they stopped and then I made him march off. That band of thirteen Sioux was afraid of my rifle and I took my time getting back to camp.’